Cheap Cell-Phone Microscopes Might Make Distance Ed Science Labs Feasible

Although the microscope is one of the central pieces of equipment for biology labs, it can prove to be a real burden for many programs. The upgrading of microscopes has become a major capital investment for some institutions, and many colleges and universities are looking for alternate ways of teaching students about microscopy and the microscopic world. For example, in our labs at Appalachian State , we use Leica light microscopes. These are pretty good instruments – durable, easy to repair and use. But the cost (upwards of $700-800 per instrument) makes it difficult to provide enough instruments for an ever-increasing student population. In addition, these instruments are bulky, meaning that they can only be used in the classroom environment. More and more, we are looking for ways to get students into the field and experiencing the biological world first hand.

Not only are the instruments expensive, but are they really even necessary for the students who are not majoring in the sciences? In most microscope labs, students struggle with the use of even the simplest of microscopes, and most lab instructors dread the thought of running around the classroom focusing 24 instruments. More importantly, as student frustration rises, their interest in what the lesson is trying to show them about microscopic organisms, is decreasing. Furthermore, the availability of quality images and videos (check out the Ricochet Science You Tube Channel) makes it much easier for an instructor to project a high-resolution image or video, and then open up the class to discussions.That scenario may be changing with a recent advance coming out of Dr. Aydogan Ozcan’s lab at UCLA. Dr. Ozcan has developed a fluorescent microscope that attaches to a cell phone– and costs less than $14.00. Initially developed for use by clinicians at remote sites or field hospitals, there is a real application for this instrument in higher education, specifically with the distance education market.

(image from publication in the journal Lab on A Chip )

Now, fluorescent microscopes are not light microscopes, but there are a few benefits of using this in the classroom. First of all, it is inexpensive, so it could easily be purchased either by the students, or placed into a rental system at the institution (many schools are already doing this for textbooks and clickers). Second, it is highly portable – meaning that students can take it home or bring it into the field. This is ideal for distance ed labs where the students are increasingly being asked to perform experiments far from the campus environment. Third, it will allow the student to appreciate the distribution or abundance of a single organism in a sample. Inexpensive probes can be developed for E. coli, or Giardia, or even non-pathogenic bacteria. For distance education students, these activities could be supplemented by high-resolution light images (or videos) of the specimens. For distance education of non-science majors, online science classes in the middle and high-schools, and homeschoolers, this may be the solution that brings microscopy to life.

Additional Links

Link to Research Paper

Zhu, H., Yaglidere, O., Su, T., Tseng, D., & Ozcan, A. (2011). Cost-effective and compact wide-field fluorescent imaging on a cell-phone Lab on a Chip DOI: 10.1039/C0LC00358A

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